During the ugly late days of the debate on health reform, a minor skirmish broke out when a savvy journalist-of-the-right, David Weigel, got an organizer of a Tea Party event protesting the legislation to acknowledge that she'd been working with Jane Hamsher, who through her blog Firedoglake had become one of the sharpest critics of the legislation from the left. Hamsher objected that, while she knew the right-wing activist and they had planned to work together on other issues, such as drug legalization (supported by some of the libertarian elements of the movement), they had not actually joined forces around their shared opposition to health reform.
Hamsher is far from alone among progressives in actively trying to forge alliances with the Tea Party movement. I recently attended a progressive policy conference at which the goal "Find Allies Among Tea-Partiers" remained on the whiteboard at the end, despite a few quietly expressed doubts about whether it was realistic. Naomi Wolf, the feminist writer who in the later Bush years began warning of the emergence of fascism in America, has argued that the Tea Party movement is offering "proposals that are ahead of their time" and says, "I hope that the movement captures the imagination of progressives, who are equally disgusted with the corruption of the status quo, and who can agree on many thematic goals, even if their policy proposals might be different."
It's a bit ironic that activists like Hamsher, who are simultaneously most critical of President Barack Obama's efforts at bipartisanship, are most eager to form alliances with those even further to the right. Ironic -- but not totally insane. There is at least a superficial logic to the idea that frustrated populists on the left share something in common with the Tea Party populists. They're angry, we're angry, let's join forces. And certainly some Tea Partiers are motivated by economic pain and an inchoate feeling that the system is unfair -- a feeling that liberalism ought to address but often doesn't. And there is a subset of the Tea Party movement made up of comprehensive libertarians. Tactical alliances between economic libertarians and civil libertarians, on issues such as privacy and drug legalization, have a history that goes back at least to 2002, when former Republican Congressman and recent Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr lobbied for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Still, those theoretical affinities don't quite explain the fascination that some progressives seem to have with the Tea Party movement. After all, the movement doesn't involve that many people, relative to all the different people with whom one could form alliances. And while in theory Tea Partiers might become populists of the left, in fact they've chosen something different, and one that tends toward the mean-spirited and ugly. For some, though -- and Wolf is the best example -- the energy, intensity, grit, and realness of Tea Party activists make them attractive, in contrast to the cautious technocrats of the liberal world and the tired apologists of the Democratic establishment. In a recent interview, Wolf said of the Tea Partiers, "They were stepping up to the plate, when my own liberal privileged fellow demographic habituates were lying around whining." Liberals, she says, in words that sound like they belong on Sarah Palin's Facebook page, have "a cultural problem with self-righteousness and elitism. ... We look down on people we don't agree with. It doesn't serve us well."
Part of it is "authenticity, " an idea with a weird appeal in recent American politics, especially for liberals. Many admired and trusted John McCain in 2000 and later, not because they agreed with him but because he seemed real, and his fits of ill temper made him even more appealing, until suddenly one day he just seemed like a tired Republican hack. Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and briefly even Mike Huckabee had a similar appeal, while Mitt Romney suffers as their opposite. And there's no doubt about the Tea Party movement on this point -- they do say what's on their minds. The appeal is also probably related to the inevitable let-down after the high energy of the 2008 presidential campaign. As we settle into the dreary compromised reality of actual governance, we need a hit of the intensity and passion of 2008 -- there's only one place to find it, even if that place is a wholly owned subsidiary of a Republican lobbying operation.
And finally, it may be that, now that even The New York Times has recognized that "identity politics" is not a liberal vice but today involves the special claims of white American identity against the complex and diverse actual country (a point this magazine made two years ago), finding allies among Tea Partiers is the equivalent of what finding a black friend was to liberals in the 1960s. It's a way to get in touch with the real America, to feel a little superior, a little less elitist or isolated, less wimpy, less conformist.
But the real America is at least as likely to be found in the 205 million voting-age adults who aren't Tea Partiers as in the few hundred thousand who are. And the rest of that real America, with its own passions and anger and economic pain, is probably a more fruitful area to look for allies on real liberal goals that include inclusion and fairness.